What Was Langston Hughes First Poem

Background Information

Langston Hughes was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist known for his work with the Harlem Renaissance.He was one of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form called jazz poetry.Pullman Porter Blues, one of his earliest works, established Hughes as a major poet of the Harlem Renaissance.The poem is both a tribute to the laborers on the railroads and a developing narrative on the African-American experience and racial barriers in the early 20th century.
Langston Hughes wrote his first major poem in 1921 while he was a student at Columbia University.He was inspired to write the poem after hearing a speech delivered by Marcus Garvey, an influential Jamaican activist.The poem, entitled “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, speaks of the shared history of the Black diaspora and the significant rivers of the world.It was first published in the African-American newspaper, The Crisis, on June 1921.It quickly became popular among readers and garnered praise from luminaries such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who hailed it as “one of the most beautiful, musical, and profound poems ever written by an American Negro.”

Relevant Data

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is a short poem of four stanzas, only seven lines long. It speaks of the connections between the African-American experience and that of other people of color. The poem touches on the shared histories of the Black diaspora, the age-old connections of all people, and the need for unity.The imagery of the poem is centered around three rivers: The Euphrates, the Congo, and the Mississippi.Each river is given its own stanza, communicating distinct themes.
The Euphrates River is a symbol of antiquity and the age-old connection of all people, it conjures up images of Biblical times, and is seen as a symbol of antiquity and connection to a shared past.The Congo River symbolizes the struggle of African slaves, the toil and hardships endured in the era of imperialism and colonization.The Mississippi River is portrayed as a symbol of struggle and hope, a reminder of the ongoing fight for freedom and justice.
The poem is significant for many reasons. It was the first poem written by Langston Hughes to garner widespread attention, and for many it marked the beginning of a powerful new poetic voice.It was also seen as a milestone for the Harlem Renaissance and a reminder of the importance of Black culture.

Analysis from Experts

Experts emphasize the importance of Langston Hughes’ first poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”.Adrienne Rich, an award-winning author and poet, called Hughes’s poem “a transcendent declaration of black identity and continuity.”Critic Terence F. Gorman noted, “The poem demonstrated Langston’s ability to synthesize his own personal experience with the collective history and experience of African Americans”.
Professor of American studies at the University of Virginia, Lisa Woolfork, observed, “Hughes’s poem speaks to a history of oppression, violence, and exploitation, while still conveying a sense of determination and hope.The imagery of the rivers serves as an effective way to speak to the shared experiences of African Americans, but also to all people who have gone through similar experiences, both past and present.”
Richard Pilate, professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara noted, “The poem shows Hughes’s awareness of African-American and international history, and his ability to combine personal narrative with metaphor and imagery for a greater message of Black pride and collective strength.”

My Insights

I believe “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is an incredibly powerful and poignant piece of poetry. The imagery of the rivers communicates a deep understanding and appreciation of the sufferings endured by people across the world, while also conveying a sense of determination and hope.The poem speaks to a shared history of oppression and struggle, but also conveys feelings of pride and resilience.
I think that Langston Hughes is able to capture the essence of the collective African American experience in a way few other poets have been able to do.His poem is equal parts comforting and inspiring, a reminder of the strength and courage of people of color, and a reminder of the power of poetry to communicate complex ideas in a concise and powerful way.

Historical Context

When “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was written in 1921, African Americans were facing immense racism and injustice throughout the United States.Racial segregation was still practiced widely, and African Americans had very few rights or protections in society.
Hughes wrote the poem at a time of massive social upheaval and unrest.In the wake of World War I, African Americans were beginning to come to terms with their place in society, as well as their place in history. They were beginning to form a shared identity and to reclaim their voices, something Hughes’s poem speaks to.
The poem served as a rallying cry for African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance.In a time of immense struggle, it provided a sense of hope, pride, and resilience in the face of adversity.It was embraced by readers of The Crisis, who praised its beauty, bravery and insightfulness.

Impact on Society

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” has had an immense impact on society, both within the African American community and beyond.It has been seen by many as a source of hope in the face of tragedy, a reminder of resilience and collective strength in the face of adversity.The poem reminds us that we are all connected, no matter our race or background, and that we must fight for our collective rights and justice.
The poem has inspired countless works of art and activism, serving as a call to action for justice and equality.It has been referenced in rap and spoken word, used as a slogan for civil rights marches, and has become a rallying cry for those seeking to end racism and oppression.
It has had an immense impact on the literary world as well, inspiring countless poets, authors, and artists.It has been studied and analyzed by scholars, and is seen as a timeless piece of literature that speaks to generations of readers about themes of identity, struggle, resilience, and hope.


The language of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is direct, powerful, and weighted with meaning.Hughes uses simple words to convey complicated ideas, and packs each line with multiple layers of meaning.The use of alliteration and assonance further emphasize the poem’s themes and ideas.
The poem uses a stream-of-consciousness style that speaks to the African American experience, evoking the rhythms of jazz and the comfort and familiarity of spirituals.The flow of the poem is full of passion and emotion, conveying ideas of loss and longing, and the common struggle of African Americans throughout history.


The composition of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is deceptively simple.It is composed of 4 stanzas of 7 lines each, with an AABB rhyme scheme.The poem is structured around 3 rivers, with each river given its own stanza to communicate distinct themes.The rivers serve as a powerful symbol of the shared history and collective strength of African Americans, while also conveying a sense of hope and resilience.
The poem’s simplicity and brevity lends itself to multiple interpretations, allowing readers to find new depths and nuances with each reading.Hughes also expertly crafts the language of the poem, using alliteration, assonance, and repetition to further emphasize its themes and ideas.The poem serves as a reminder that power can come in small packages, often speaking the loudest.

Dannah Hannah is an established poet and author who loves to write about the beauty and power of poetry. She has published several collections of her own works, as well as articles and reviews on poets she admires. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a specialization in poetics, from the University of Toronto. Hannah was also a panelist for the 2017 Futurepoem book Poetry + Social Justice, which aimed to bring attention to activism through poetry. She lives in Toronto, Canada, where she continues to write and explore the depths of poetry and its influence on our lives.

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